As Roslyn Pineda grew closer to God during the pandemic, she reconnected online with Christian friends she hadn’t seen in years. Although she had lived in Hong Kong for 20 years, she joined their Bible studies in the Philippines.
And as CEO of Sony Music Philippines, she began to reflect on the importance of Christian music during this global moment.
“Given the many hardships and monumental losses COVID-19 has brought, wouldn’t it make sense for people to turn to God? Whether they know it or not, don’t they need more faith-based and uplifting music in their lives? asked Pineda, who is Filipina.
In October 2021, Pineda and Sony Music launched Waterwalk Records, a Christian label focused on contemporary artists and streaming listeners.
The new label held promise evangelically and commercially. Sony’s Christian division, Provident, ranked the Philippines among its top 10 markets outside the United States. And the audience demographic was also the most sought after by churches and businesses: 16-35 year olds who demand authenticity and consume music through Spotify and YouTube.
“It’s an unexplored market that has huge potential,” Pineda said. “We had to go where the streaming market is. While many of our viewers are active in their Christian communities, we also wanted to reach out to those who are non-Christians and/or non-practicing Christians.
In the Philippines, the top Christian chart songs often come from global labels like Hillsong or church networks like Every Nation Music and Victory Church, which has more than 100 locations across the country. The original Filipino Gospel, mostly sung in Tagalog, has also gained strong popularity over the decades in major evangelical churches.
Much Christian independent music has been inspired by Papuri, a popular music ministry developed by radio network Far East Broadcasting Company 40 years ago, noted Jungee Marcelo, a Christian songwriter and producer.
Waterwalk Records, however, is not affiliated with any particular church or tradition, and its artists come from a variety of faiths.
Image: Courtesy of Sony Philippines
His first dozen streaming singles come from musicians active in praise and worship ministries as well as secular entertainment; many of them have built their followings online. All but one are from the Philippines, and their churches are spread across the 7,641-island archipelago, deliberately not limited to the National Capital Region.
While Waterwalk strives to be “genre independent” and showcases a generation of artists who transcend the tick boxes of Christian music, the label holds to certain non-negotiables when it comes to faith. First, the songs must be “theologically sound and Bible-based.” The team guides artists to ensure their lyrics align with scripture. “Some lyrics can be uplifting, but they’re not necessarily gospel-based,” Pineda said.
Second, artists must be “strong in faith and… devout Christians,” who have been walking with the Lord for some time and not brand new believers. The hope is that such spiritual maturity will reduce a performer’s risk of doing things that might trip up their audience, and that it will make the music richer, with the authenticity that young listeners crave.
Darla Baltazar, 24, who sings and produces music from her bedroom in Manila, is one of Waterwalk’s most popular performers. She shares her songs, faith and process on her social media. His most popular song, “No Good Thing,” is a jazzy version of Psalm 34.
“I’m very serious about my relationship with God,” Baltazar said in an interview with CT. “I can’t pretend and force words. These words come from my walk with him. God would tell me to share my music so that listeners find their way to him.
The cool, sweet sounds of Baltazar’s cafes draw non-Christian listeners in, while his lyrics introduce them to the truths of the gospel. She sees fans go from confused to curious to inspired. “I ask my non-Christian Instagram followers why they follow me,” she said. “They like the melody, but the message attracts them.”
Taiwanese singer Ariel Tsai, another Waterwalk performer, has the same experience.
“They say in the comments section that they don’t know God,” she said, “but they yearn for that sense of belonging that they felt through my music.”
Tsai, 27, has gone viral for her Chinese covers and is now composing a piano cult. His English album titled “My All and All” was released last year.
“There’s so much uncertainty and hardship, which makes people think about what’s really certain and what we can hold on to,” she says. “My central message is that God is consistent and his love does not change. This sense of consistency attracts people to get to know it.
Baltazar believes pandemic streaming has led to a new acceptance, and perhaps even a hunger, for gospel-centric music among TikTok, YouTube, Instagram and Spotify users.
“Everyone at home was listening to this kind of music,” she said. “That’s why my music multiplied and people played it in the background while they were working or studying. They say it’s peaceful and soothing.
Pineda confirms that there has been “a growth in music consumption in the Philippines during the pandemic across all platforms, but most notably on YouTube and TikTok. There was also a spike in catalog songs [of iconic artists] because, in uncertain times, people wanted the comfort of familiar tunes.
Baltazar thrives on interactivity on social media, answering follower questions, incorporating their suggestions into the songwriting process, and sharing his thoughts on faith. She hosts online events — responding to the needs of a global pandemic — where she and listeners can experience the music and the message together.
As she describes it, “People tell us about the music they want, and we organize it for the listening party. We split the program, and there’s a 15-minute gospel message. In these events, we let’s listen to Christian music together, not like a concert, but just enjoying it.The listening part can also become evangelical because we also invite non-Christians.
Baltazar, a former preschool teacher before embarking on full-time music-making, loosely describes her affiliation as “independent Christian, or people who make Christian music but outside of the typical church congregation.” His 2020 single “Feet in the Rain” took off on Spotify playlists, and Baltazar was named one of The Gospel Coalition’s artists to watch in 2021.
“The majority of my listeners are in the United States. They are mostly Christians between the ages of 18 and 24,” she said. “They don’t even realize I’m Filipino.”
Tsai’s followers are an international mix of her Taiwanese and Southeast Asian communities as well as North American Asian communities. They also found it on Spotify and YouTube.
“My fans know I’m an outspoken Christian,” said Tsai, a successful pop artist before rising to fame for her Christian music. She is currently under contract with Sony Music Taiwan.
Unlike the Filipino Waterwalk Christians, Tsai comes from a background where Christianity is not the majority religion.
“People in Asia are prejudiced against Christians and think we can be pushy,” she told CT. “I never thought of releasing a cult song publicly, no pop singer in Taiwan does. It’s very sensitive here. No artist wants to be officially associated as a diehard Christian.
At the same time, she says, “I always want to stay true to myself. Christianity is my way of life, and I think there’s no shame in saying that. I make it clear to the audience that the song I release is how I feel about my religion and it can empower them.
While the initial roster of artists is primarily Filipino, Pineda plans to make Waterwalk more regional in the future. Efforts will be made to reach out to Christian artists in Korea and other Southeast Asian countries, leveraging Sony’s extensive international network.
To date, Pineda says the response from streaming platforms has been encouraging, opening up Waterwalk’s current playlist to the US market.
As the label continues to release new music, Pineda hopes the project lives up to its namesake.
“Waterwalk is based on Matthew 14:22-36. Everyone remembers this passage of Jesus walking on water. But they tend to forget that Peter also walked,” she said. “We wanted a name that shows something similar: being bold, having faith and something adventurous.”